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Insurance TLD draws interest

Kevin Murphy, November 12, 2010, Domain Registries

An initiative to create a top-level domain for the insurance industry appears to be attracting support in German-speaking countries.

dotVersicherung plans to apply for .versicherung (.insurance) in the first round of new TLD applications next summer, according to its web site.

The domain would be reserved for insurance companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Judging by its web site, which is one of the more comprehensive I’ve seen from a new TLD initiative, it has picked up a fair bit of interest from insurance companies already.

The organization reckons it will cost about 2 million euros to launch the TLD, and it currently appears to be inviting investors to get involved.

It disputes the idea that .versicherung is too long for a TLD, saying that there are already 25,000 domains in .de that contain the term at the second level and that most visitors will use search engines, rather than type-in, to find web sites.

It looks like the organization has been around several months, and is currently doing a publicity tour of its target nations. It also looks like Dirk Krischenowski, CEO of dotBERLIN, is involved in an advisory capacity.

I’m getting this information via Google Translate, by the way, so it may not be 100% reliable.

Hat tip to Jean Guillon, who’s been turning the ability to spot new TLD initiatives into a fine art recently.

First reactions to ICANN’s VI bombshell

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2010, Domain Registries

Shortly before 8am UTC today, ICANN announced that it plans to blur the lines between domain name registries and registrars by eliminating cross-ownership restrictions and enabling vertical integration of the two functions.

The shock move is likely to have profound repercussions on the domain industry for years to come.

I’ve spent the last ten hours collating a bunch of early reaction from Twitter and the blogosphere.

Like blind men groping an elephant, everyone had their own take on the news, which perhaps indicates how broad-reaching its effects will be.

Linkfest coming up.

Apparently the first to notice the news, which came just before midnight in California, was AusRegistry, the Australian registry services company, with this pithy tweet:

Any Registrars wanting Registry software can enquire within…

The company later followed up with a blog post:

The positives of this resolution is that it is highly likely that we will see the adoption and growth of smaller more boutique TLDs being championed to market by their Registrar owners and for many industry participants, anything that promotes the success of the new gTLD program and the reduced risk of Registry failure can only be seen as a good thing.

As Europe woke up to the news, Michele Neylon of Irish registrar Blacknight decided to eschew diplomacy, and pondered the possible fallout from ICANN’s decision:

Now the next question is – what next?

How will people react?

Are we going to see a flood of nastygrams from Afilias and PIR being sent to the ICANN board demanding them to backtrack?

Across the pond, Minds + Machines CEO Antony Van Couvering quickly rattled off a typically eloquent blog post that focussed on what he seems to see as ICANN’s sudden spine growth:

This is the only principled decision the ICANN Board could have come to, and they deserve a lot of credit for doing it. By “principled,” I mean taking ICANN’s stated institutional principles and following them to their logical conclusion.

The new landscape will require everyone in the domain name business to re-examine their business, their partners, their strategy. It will have consequences between those I enumerated above. It will re-invigorate the industry, and it will help establish the respect that ICANN has lacked for so long.

Another new TLD applicant, Constanine Roussos of .music tweeted:

ICANN allows Vertical Integration for new top-level domains. .MUSIC is thrilled. #ICANN makes history. The lobbying effort was well worth it

Over in Japan, Jacob Williams of new TLD consultants UrbanBrain reflected some of the industry’s shock that ICANN went against many observers’ expectations.

This announcement is a full 180 degree turn from the verbiage in DAG 4 and the resolutions passed at the public meeting in Nairobi earlier this year. This decision comes huge surprise, but surely a relief to many New gTLD applicants.

On the policy side of things, veteran ICANN commentator Danny Younger expressed surprise of a different kind on his new ICANNology blog:

I’ve been wondering how an ICANN Board session that is “not designated as an Official Board Meeting” can result in official Board Resolutions.

If the meeting is specifically not designated as “special”, but rather as a board “retreat”, should official board resolutions be promulgated at the conclusion of such sessions?

Fellow policy wonk George Kirikos tweeted:

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” applies to #ICANN’s latest moves.

Former ICANN staffer Kieren McCarthy tweeted, less ambiguously:

Good call #ICANN Board. Recognizing the realities of new top-level domains and standing up for principles over pressure

Finally, EnCirca, a US-based registrar, tried to pick winners and losers and concluded that it is the “.brand” TLDs that will gain the most, and that it is the registrars that are in for a shake-up.

the real winners will be the major brands on the internet: Apple, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Microsoft. Any one of these could launch their own TLD to rival dot-com.

Who are the biggest losers? The Registrar channel. Registrars will no longer be assured of being able to offer new TLD’s to their customers. Registries will start to bypass their registrar partners and deal directly with end-users.

Registries and registrars will need to start innovating to remain relevant. It is time to start competing.

As you might expect, there has been not much reaction yet from those, such as Go Daddy, which opposed full vertical integration.

But Warren Adelman, Go Daddy’s president, tweeted within the last hour:

Let the games begin

Quite.

Vertical integration – bad news for domainers?

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s decision to allow domain name registrars to operate registries is a game changer on many fronts, but what impact could it have on domain investors?

For the first time, registrars will be able apply for and run new top-level domains, giving them unprecedented insight into registry-level data.

If they also act as registries, registrars will, for example, be able to see what non-existent domains in their TLD get the most type-in traffic.

They will also be able to see how much traffic expiring domains get, even if the registrant does not use the registrar’s own name servers.

As claimed by some participants in ICANN’s vertical integration working group, this data could be used to “harm” registrants; harms that could be especially noticeable to domainers.

There was a concern from some in the WG that combined registry-registrar entities (we’re going to need a name for these) could use registry data to, for example, identify and withhold high-value names, increasing prices to potential registrants.

The possibility of an increase in “domain tasting” and “front-running” – practices generally frowned upon nowadays – was also raised.

However, some registrars are already owned by companies that register large numbers of traffic domains for themselves, even without access to registry data.

Demand Media subsidiary eNom, the second-largest gTLD registrar, is a good example.

As DomainNameWire reported in August, the company already uses domain name lookups to decide what names to register for itself (though it told DNW it does not “front-run”), saying in SEC filings:

These queries and look-ups provide insight into what consumers may be seeking online and represent a proprietary and valuable source of relevant information for our platform’s title generation algorithms and the algorithms we use to acquire undeveloped websites for our portfolio.

Demand also said that it acquires eNom customers’ expiring domains if they are attractive enough:

Domain names not renewed by their prior registrants that meet certain of our criteria are acquired by us to augment our portfolio of undeveloped owned and operated websites.

Access to registry data could prove invaluable in refining this model, and eNom has, unsurprisingly. long indicated its desire to apply for and operate new TLDs.

But will registries be allowed to exploit this data to line their own pockets?

ICANN indicated today that it plans to introduce a code of conduct for registries, to prevent “misuse of data”, and will likely step up its compliance activities as a result.

What this code of conduct will look like remains to be seen, but I expect we’re looking at “Chinese wall” provisions similar to those self-imposed by VeriSign when it still owned Network Solutions.

It should be pointed out, of course, that standalone registries already have the ability to register domains to themselves, based on their own registry data, and I’m not aware of a great many incidents where this has been abused to the harm of registrants.

Is the new TLD program already delayed?

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN has missed the first target date on its recently approved new top-level domains launch timetable.

The organization was due to publish its proposed final Applicant Guidebook for public comment yesterday, but has failed to do so.

Rumor has it that it could be tomorrow or Friday before the AGB is published.

Could there be a knock-on effect? Does this mean that the process as a whole, scheduled to see the first round of new TLD applications open May 30, 2011, is already delayed?

Be warned, I’m just thinking aloud here. This is pure, idle speculation.

Two thoughts occur to me.

First, does this delay mean that ICANN will not be able to vote on the AGB at its December 10 meeting, as planned?

Second, does this delay create a scenario in which the program’s opponents will be able to lobby for further delays?

The original, quite tight timetable called for a November 9 AGB publication date and the immediate launch of a 30-day public comment period.

Doors would have closed to feedback on December 9, the day before the next ICANN board meeting.

With the AGB publication deadline now missed, and if ICANN otherwise sticks to its plan, a 30-day comment window would still be open when the board convenes in Cartagena.

Since ICANN is not in the habit of voting on issues that are still subject to open comment periods, my guess is that its best bet now will be to tighten the schedule.

While the board has seemingly okayed 30 days for community input, I’m not sure how binding that is, and my reading of ICANN’s bylaws suggests that it could be quite easily be reduced to anything as short as 21 days.

A comment period that lasted beyond December 10 would enable an organization opposed to the new TLD program to submit comments after the vote has been cast, allowing no time for the board to consider them.

This seemingly counter-intuitive move would however create grounds for a subsequent Reconsideration Request if the AGB is approved in Colombia, potentially delaying the process.

Would this be a clever strategy? I doubt it. Reconsideration Requests rarely work, and are hardly the most effective way to have your views heard within ICANN.

Still, these are strange times, and anything seems possible.

One thing is certain, given the enthusiastic reception the recent publication of the timetable received, it will be dispiriting to many today to see that ICANN has already missed its first deliverable date.

ICANN drops the bomb – registries can buy registrars

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN has just authorized the biggest shake-up of the domain name industry in a decade, lifting all the major cross-ownership restrictions on registrars and registries.

A surprise resolution passed on Friday at the ICANN board’s retreat could enable registries such as VeriSign to acquire registrars such as Go Daddy, and vice-versa.

The new rules will also allow registrars to apply for and run new top-level domains and, subject to additional conditions, may enable existing registries to eventually start selling direct to end users, potentially bypassing the registrar channel.

The implications of these changes could be enormous, and I expect they could be challenged by affected parties.

The board resolved that ICANN “will not restrict cross-ownership between registries and registrars”, subject to certain yet-to-be written Code of Conduct for preventing abuse.

These looser ownership restrictions will be included in the new TLD Applicant Guidebook. Existing registries will be able to transition to the new rules over time through contract changes.

ICANN will develop mechanisms for enforcing anti-abuse rules through contractual compliance programs, and will have the ability to refer cross-ownership deals to competition authorities.

These provisions may be enhanced by additional enforcement mechanisms such as the use of self-auditing requirements, and the use of graduated sanctions up to and including contractual termination and punitive damages.

The decision appears to have been made partly on the grounds that while almost all existing registry contracts include strict cross-ownership restrictions, it has never been a matter of formal policy.

A vertical integration working group which set out to create a bottom-up consensus policy earlier this year managed to find only deadlock.

ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush said:

In the absence of existing policy or new bottom-up policy recommendations, the Board saw no rationale for placing restrictions on cross-ownership. Any possible abuses can be better addressed by properly targeted mechanisms. Co-ownership rules are not an optimal technique in this area.

Most members of the VI working group broadly favored some level of cross-ownership restriction, such as a 15% cap, while a smaller number favored the “free trade” position that ICANN seems to have gone for.

The companies campaigning hardest against cross-ownership being permitted were arguably Afilias and Go Daddy, though the likes of NeuStar and VeriSign also favored some restrictions.

Opponents of integrating registry and registrar functions argued that giving registrars access to registry data would harm consumers; others countered that this was best addressed through compliance programs rather than ownership caps.

The big winners from this announcement are the start-up new TLD registries, which will not be forced to work exclusively within the existing registrar channel in order to sell their domains.

Van Couvering takes over M+M parent

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2010, Domain Registries

Antony Van Couvering, chief executive of new top-level domains hopeful Minds + Machines, has taken over as CEO of its parent company, Top Level Domain Holdings.

He replaces Fred Krueger, who remains as chairman, according to StockMarketWire.com.

Casper von Veltheim, head of the German operation, will also become director of European operations.

The changes are related to the recent announcement of a timetable for the introduction of new TLDs, according to Krueger.

M+M plans to apply for a number of TLDs, including .gay, and provides consulting and back-end services to other TLD applicants.

New TLD firms to ICANN: “Get on with it”

Kevin Murphy, November 8, 2010, Domain Registries

A number of prospective domain name registries have called on ICANN to shorten the window for its first round of new top-level domain applications.

While we now know that ICANN is working towards a May 30, 2011 opening date for applications, its recently published timeline does not specify how long the application period will last.

However, last month’s draft document “Delegation Rate Scenarios For New gTLDs” (pdf) states that the window of opportunity for TLD applicants will last 90 days.

Now, many of the companies and organizations that have been waiting the longest to apply have asked ICANN to narrow that period to 30 days.

Jon Nevett, president of Domain Dimensions, in a comment on the delegation rate report, wrote:

In prior presentations and discussions with ICANN staff, a 30-day application window had been discussed. I’m not sure how the 30 days turned into a 90-day window in this report. Tacking a 90-day window on after a four-month communications period does not make sense and is extremely unfair to applicants.

After the publication of the final Applicant Guidebook (AGB), ICANN plans to conduct a four-month outreach and marketing effort before accepting applications. The current draft AGB predicts an eight-month processing period for the very simplest applications.

Nevett, and others that subsequently echoed his views, believe that the longer window punishes companies that have invested resources in new TLD applications over the last few years.

There have already been a number of delays to the program’s launch, which was originally scheduled to kick off in 2009, and then mid-2010.

Nevett wrote:

Let’s stop punishing applicants by sucking them dry of all of their working capital by creating a seven-month communications/application period followed by a minimum eight-month review period piled on the years that they already have been waiting. We could do better.

His views were supported in separate comments by commercial operators including of Minds + Machines and .MUSIC, along with geo-TLD efforts including dotBERLIN and dotAfrica.

While the comment period has seen no opposing views, one criticism previously offered by opponents of the new TLD program is that it will unfairly benefit “insiders” – those people who participate regularly in ICANN for their own business purposes.

Will the new TLD guidebook provide answers?

Kevin Murphy, November 8, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN is due to publish an Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domain registries tomorrow, and there are still big question marks over its contents.

Judging from a preliminary report from the ICANN board’s most-recent official meeting, some key decisions may not have yet been taken.

Perhaps the biggest unresolved issue is whether to permit the “vertical integration” of registry and registrar functions.

Which way ICANN swings on this problem will determine which companies are eligible to apply for new TLDs, how their business models will be structured, and how realistic “.brand” TLDs will be.

The ICANN community failed to reach consensus on this issue, largely due to differing business interests and a few consumer protection concerns.

But it looks like the ICANN board did not even discuss the matter at its October 28 meeting. The preliminary report has this to say:

2. Vertical Integration

In the interests of time, the Chair adjourned this item of discussion to a later date.

That “later date” may have been last Thursday and Friday, when the board held its rescheduled “retreat”, which is not designated as an official meeting.

On “Rec6”, previously known as the “morality and public order” objections process, the board passed no resolution October 28, but seems to have endorsed further discussions with the community.

The preliminary report states:

The Board discussed staff presentation and, in conformance with staff recommendation, directed staff to provide a briefing paper to the working group and to coordinate a call with the working group to further discuss the issues.

If the Rec6 working group mailing list and the GNSO calendar are any guides, that meeting has not yet been called (at least not publically).

The report also addresses geographic domains and issues that need to be taken into account given what ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US government says about new TLDs.

The Board agreed that staff provide a paper on geographic names to the GAC, the Chair of the GAC would check on the scope of issues still requiring discussion, and then the Chairs of the GAC and the Board would discuss the process for resolution to move this issue forward prior to Cartagena.

The Board discussed a paper regarding the adherence to the conditions set out in the Affirmation of Commitments in launching New gTLDs, and the need for identifying objective metrics to measure ICANN’s performance. The Board asked staff to consider what known performance indicators for the New gTLD program may be, what the adequacy scale is for measuring, and try to set that out for future conversation.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that while we may have a timeline for the launch of the new TLD program, there’s still much more to do than merely cross t’s and dot i’s.

Can we expect more placeholder text in tomorrow’s Applicant Guidebook?

DotFree starts taking .free domain preregistrations

Kevin Murphy, November 1, 2010, Domain Registries

The DotFree Group, which plans to apply to ICANN to run .free as a top-level domain, has become one of the first would-be registries to open its doors for preregistrations.

From noon UTC today, the Czech company has made a tool available on its web site enabling users to reserve their desired strings by handing over their contact information.

Of course, there’s no guarantee any preregistration will actually turn into a .free domain – ICANN may turn down DotFree’s application or award the string to another bidder.

While the plan is to offer some .free domains free of charge, DotFree intends to hold tens (or hundreds) of thousands of “premium” strings for auction or paid-for registrations.

In other words, if you try to register any really juicy strings today, you’re out of luck.

DotFree is one of only a few unapproved TLD registries to accept preregistrations.

ICM Registry started taking .xxx preregs a few years ago, but only after it had already received ICANN’s approval (which was, of course, later revoked).

Another wannabe TLD operator, the MLS Domains Association, is charging “multiple listing service” real estate brokers many hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to own their own .mls domain name.

UPDATE: Messing around with the preregistration tool, I’ve noticed that it appears to ban any string that ends with the number 4. Presumably these will be “premium”, due to the “for” pun.

New TLD applications to open May 2011

Kevin Murphy, October 30, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN has named the date for its planned launch of the new top-level domain application process.

According to a resolution passed at its board of directors meeting Thursday, ICANN is targeting May 30, 2011 for the opening of applications.

The proposed final version of the Applicant Guidebook is set to be published November 9, and is expected to be approved by the board at its meeting in Cartagena, December 10.

A four-month marketing and outreach period is expected to kick off January 10.

If you’re looking for the specifics of what the Applicant Guidebook will contain, you’re out of luck.

# Vertical Integration – No resolution

# GNSO New gTLD Recommendation 6 Objection Process – No resolution

# GAC Issues Letter including Geographic Names – No resolution

# Affirmation of Commitment Considerations – No resolution

Looks like we’ll have to wait until November 9 to find out what has been agreed on each of these issues.